Home » Posts tagged 'kurt cobb'

Tag Archives: kurt cobb

Olduvai
Click on image to purchase

Olduvai III: Catacylsm
Click on image to purchase

Post categories

Air-conditioning the outside—really

Air-conditioning the outside—really

Qatar is both a country and a peninsula which juts out about 100 miles into the Persian Gulf. It is precisely this geography which makes it both one of the hottest and muggiest places on Earth. The average daily high in mid-summer is 108 degrees F (42 degrees C).

With temperatures now exceeding those averages on a regular basis and nighttime temperatures hovering in the 90s in summer, Qatar has begun working on making the outside cooler.

It had to come. As climate change continues to move temperatures up worldwide, those places that were already hot are getting hotter—and unlivable.

Workers on a U.S. military base in Qatar must now follow strict rest regimens so as not to endanger their well-being on hot days. The Washington Post reports:

The U.S. Air Force calls very hot days “black flag days” and limits exposure of troops stationed at al-Udeid Air Base. Personnel conducting patrols or aircraft maintenance work for 20 minutes, then rest for 40 minutes and drink two bottles of water an hour. People doing heavy work in the fire department or aircraft repair may work for only 10 minutes at a time, followed by 50 minutes of rest, according to a spokesman for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.

Cooling units along walkways and outdoor seating areas in Qatar’s cities make it possible for people to stroll or relax in the evening without danger of overheating. Qatar is also engineering ways to cool entire open-air stadiums to make them bearable for spectators.

In my previous post I discussed how our ideas of progress are getting in the way of actual progress in human affairs. While Qatar may be making “progress” in cooling technology, I would not consider it a contribution to the overall progress of humankind. It is actually one more example of the limits we face.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The biggest obstacle to progress is our idea of progres

The biggest obstacle to progress is our idea of progress

Those who oppose change, even in a single category of life, are often labeled as enemies of “progress.” In the modern era “progress” has become a catch-all word to describe every technological change by the proponents of that change. Thinking people will agree that not all change is progress. But it is striking how infrequently most people actually oppose technological change when it comes.

Often the technological change is billed as a “solution” to a problem created by a previous technological change that was billed as “progress.” The proliferation of air filtering technology comes to mind. I am not opposing air filtering technology, only pointing out that it is not a step forward but rather at most a step sideways to make up for another supposed step forward.

It is logical to assume that making progress toward one’s destination is a good thing. After all, if we have a goal, doing things which allow us to reach that goal seems positive. But this does not touch on the question of whether the goal itself will amount to progress once we get there.

One further thing to note is that “progress” in our modern technical society is almost always defined by others for us. Some corporation, inventor or software genius comes up with a new gadget or process that is then sold as an “improvement” on our current way of doing things. We don’t get to vote on these “improvements.” They are foisted upon us whether we want them or not. This is done partly by exploiting the networking effect. To wit, when everyone you know has a smartphone, they will pressure you to get one because they “need” you to be able to receive their text messages.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Oops! Gene editing not as precise as advertised

Oops! Gene editing not as precise as advertised

Sometimes a headline gives you practically the entire story. Take this one: “Gene-Editing Unintentionally Adds Bovine DNA, Goat DNA, and Bacterial DNA, Mouse Researchers Find.” The writer details how this happens, of course. And, there is an important subtext. The problem is chalked up by scientists and regulators to incompetence on the part of the company doing alterations to create cattle without horns.

But the real news is this according the author: “[F]oreign DNA from surprising sources can routinely find its way into the genome of edited animals. This genetic material is not DNA that was put there on purpose, but rather, is a contaminant of standard editing procedures.” [My emphasis.]

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (remember records?), as Garrett Hardin, the author of the first law of ecology, reminds us, “we can never merely do one thing.” Why is this truism so hard to accept, so hard that I feel compelled to refer to it in consecutive posts? The simple answer is that as long as there is profit in ignoring it and as long as it is possible to pass the bad consequences on to others, people will act as if Hardin’s first law was never spoken.

Unfortunately, we ignore Hardin in practically everything we do. For example, we discover the convenience of tough, clear plastics and create health damage with the chemical that makes them that way. We later discover that plastic degrades into very tiny particles that are now ubiquitouson the planet and in our bodies as well.

In each case the damage is spread around as the profits mount for the makers. But even they can no longer escape their handiwork. The damage now makes its way into the corporate suites and penthouses.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Genetically engineered honeybees: Not the dumbest idea ever, but close to it

Genetically engineered honeybees: Not the dumbest idea ever, but close to it

In the wake of widespread declines in bee populations, farmers and beekeepers are wondering who exactly is going to pollinate that third of the world’s food crops which require pollination. The declines have been attributed to pesticides, parasites and climate change.

In Europe one response has been to phase out a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The phase-out has coincided with a revival of bee populations. But pesticides are clearly not the only factor affecting bee health.

Another response has been to consider building a better bee. Enter the geneticists. Why not genetically engineer honeybees to resist those things which are undermining their health?

That seems a little like suggesting that we take carbon out of the atmosphere to address climate change without doing anything about the carbon we are putting into the atmosphere.

Moreover, the original idea behind the genetic engineering of bees is the same as that behind plants and even humans: One gene equals one trait. It turns out there are three problems with this idea. First, genes are multitaskers in honey bees (and in humans, too). That means genes can make more than one kind of protein which means that the idea that one gene always equals one trait has long since been disproved. Second, gene expression depends on a number epigeneticfactors, that is, factors that occur during the development of the organism. Third, the term “trait” has the problem that all words have. It’s ambiguous. (And, if you tell me “trait” has a very precise definition in genetics, then you will almost certainly use words to convey that definition.)

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Plastic, plastic everywhere

Plastic, plastic everywhere

When we discard a plastic bag, an electronic device encased in plastic, a plastic pen emptied of its ink or any of the myriad plastic objects which populate our lives, we usually say we are throwing the object “away.” By that we mean into a trash or recycling bin and from there to a landfill or recycling facility.

I put “away” in quotes because if there were ever any piece of evidence to convince us that there is no “away” in the sense described above, it is the discovery of tiny particles of plastic in the Arctic ice, deep oceans and high mountains.

These so-called microplastics are so ubiquitous now that they are believed to be floating in the air practically everywhere. Some tiny plastic bits have been seen the lungs of cancer patients who have died. Humans not only breathe them in, but also supposedly eat 50,000 of these particles every year.

And, of course, we know absolutely nothing about the potential health effects of these microplastics on humans. We are frequently told that the novel chemicals humans design are supposed to bring us advantages which will make our lives better, more productive and less toilsome. The problem is that once these are released into the environment, they go everywhere.

The industry line is that these releases are small, and that any which end up in the bodies of humans and animals will have little or no effect. But this has proven to be merely an industry ploy designed to delay the recognition of hazards as I wrote a few weeks ago.

There has been for some time a movement called “green chemistry” which aims to reduce the hazards associated with synthetic chemicals significantly. It does not, however, aim to eliminate them, at least in green chemistry’s current form.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

When software rules the world

When software rules the world

I was a young boy when elevator operators still closed those see-through, metal accordion interior elevator doors by hand and then moved the elevator up or down by rotating a knob on a wheel embedded in the elevator wall.

Within a few years all those operators were gone, replaced by numbered buttons on the elevator wall. Today, so many activities that used to be mediated by human judgement are now governed by algorithms inside automated systems.

Apart from the implications for elevator operators and others displaced by such technology, there is the question of transparency. It’s easy to determine visually whether an elevator door is open and the elevator is level with the floor you’re on so that you can safely exit.

As the world has seen to its horror twice recently, it’s harder to know whether software on a Boeing 737 MAX is giving you the right information and doing the right thing while you are in mid-flight.

Yet, more and more of our lives are being turned over to software. And, despite the toll in lives; stolen identities; computer breaches and cybercrime; and even the threat that organized military cyberwar units now pose to critical water and electricity infrastructure—despite all that, the public, industry and government remain in thrall to the idea that we should turn over more and more control of our lives to software.

Of course, software can do some things much better and faster than humans: vast computations and complex modeling; control of large-scale processes such as oil refining and air transportation routes; precision manufacturing by robots and many, many other tasks. We use software to tell machines to do repetitive and mundane tasks (utilizing their enormous capacity and speed) and to give us insight into the highly complex, for example, climate change.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

CO2 emissions: The trend is not your friend

CO2 emissions: The trend is not your friend

When the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in late March that energy consumption in 2018 rose at the fastest rate in a decade, it confirmed something that most of those who truly understand the climate crisis already know: Collectively, humanity is making almost no progress in doing anything significant about climate change. So, it’s not surprising that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has hit yet another record high.

While the dominate public narrative has been that we are making great leaps toward a low-carbon economy through the rapid deployment of renewable energy, the IEA report showed a civilization moving inexorably toward climate catastrophe.

Of the growth in energy demand—the extra energy needed to power the world economy in 2018 versus 2017—70 percent was supplied by fossil fuels. When we hear, as the IEA tells us, that solar energy generation increased by 31 percent last year without appropriate context, we fail to understand that this is off a very small base relative to fossil fuel energy.

Coal burning accounted for about one-third of all emissions in 2018. Coal consumption continues to increase. This, we are told, is despite the rising use of natural gas for electricity generation. But, natural gas, though it contains less carbon, is still a carbon fuel.

Perhaps the most important statement in the release was this:

Almost a fifth of the increase in global energy demand came from higher demand for heating and cooling as average winter and summer temperatures in some regions approached or exceeded historical records. Cold snaps drove demand for heating and, more significantly, hotter summer temperatures pushed up demand for cooling.

Climate change is creating a vicious cycle in which that change creates greater extremes in weather which create more demand for energy which is still largely generated using fossil fuels—which then release more greenhouse gases creating even more extreme climate.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Does Chevron know exactly what shale oil and gas are worth?

Does Chevron know exactly what shale oil and gas are worth?

Welcome to the bidding war that didn’t happen. The decision last week by international oil giant Chevron Corp. to leave its takeover bid for shale oil and gas-heavy Anadarko Petroleum Corp. unaltered in the wake of a higher offer from rival bidder Occidental Petroleum Corp. surprised some who had expected a back and forth escalation between the two competitors.

Chevron’s CEO told Bloomberg, “Winning in any environment doesn’t mean winning at any cost.” Chevron’s hesitancy to pay up for Anadarko’s assets suggests a measured assessment about what Anadarko might deliver, one tempered by emerging political developments and perhaps a less sanguine view about the durability of the shale boom.

Anadarko, after all, has considerable operations in Colorado which recently enacted a billincreasing the ability of municipalities to curtail oil and gas development, authorizing more stringent air quality monitoring and rules, and turning the commission which was tasked with “fostering” oil and gas development into one which actually regulates it. That spells less oil and gas development in a state that has been critical to Anadarko and to the shale boom.

The promoters of shale oil and gas investment are pretending as if the kind of backlash which happened in Colorado could not occur elsewhere. Don’t count on that being the case.

Beyond this, energy writer Nick Cunningham summarizes the most recent update of prospects for shale hydrocarbons released by a skeptical Post Carbon Institute. Issues identified by the institute way back in 2012 have continued to unfold as foretold. All the technological improvements since then are only hastening the day when production will turn down according to the report’s author. Simply put, production from oil and gas shale deposits is being “frontloaded.”

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Carbon emissions reach record: How can we build solidarity to fight climate change?

Carbon emissions reach record: How can we build solidarity to fight climate change?

When carbon emissions appeared to level off from 2014 through 2016, some people were hopeful that industrial civilization just might be able to decouple carbon emissions from economic growth. After all, the world economy had been growing and yet carbon emissions had not grown with it.

Fast forward to today. It turns out that humans are still burning lots of carbon to support economic growth as carbon emissions in 2018 reached a new record. The temporary halt from 2014 through 2016 was primarily due to the rapid replacement of coal-fired power plants with natural gas and renewable energy sources, a trend that by itself cannot solve the climate crisis.

So, once again, policymakers are asking how they can possibly achieve the rapid decline in emissions which the world’s scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. The answer is actually simple and extremely painful. They must stop focusing on growth and make an all-out effort to reduce emissions.

One of the reasons that most leaders around the world refuse to contemplate this is that it would result in mass unrest as those at the middle and bottom of the economic scale would be shut out of bettering their material lives. The only way to address such a situation would be to guarantee them the basics of housing, education, health care and affordable food, something that most ruling elites cannot entertain as a possibility.

Reversing climate change would undoubtedly produce a lot of economic activity. It might even allow for some economic growth. But if growth remains the objective of every society on the planet, then we will almost surely fail to address climate change.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Deep adaptation, post-sustainability and the possibility of societal collapse

Deep adaptation, post-sustainability and the possibility of societal collapse

I write this piece primarily to get you to read an academic paper that has attracted relatively widespread attention. It is entitled “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.”

It is remarkable in a number of aspects. First, it was written by a professor of sustainability leadership who has been heavily involved for a long time in helping organizations including governments, nonprofits and corporations to become more sustainable. Second, the author, Jem Bendall, has now concluded the following after an exhaustive review of the most up-to-date findings about climate change:  “inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction.” Third, his paper was rejected for publication not because it contained any errors of fact, but largely because it was too negative and thought to breed hopelessness.

It is important to understand what Bendall means by “collapse” in this context. He does not necessarily mean an event taking place in a relatively short period of time all over the world all at once. Rather, he means severe disruptions of our lives and societies to a degree than renders our current institutional arrangements largely irrelevant. He believes we won’t be able to respond to the scope of suffering and change by doing things the way we are doing them now with only a few reformist tweaks.

That this idea doesn’t go down well in sustainability circles should be no surprise. That’s because our current arrangements, even if “reformed” to take environmental imperatives into account, are in no way equal to the task ahead. Our existing institutions are structurally incapable of responding to what is coming and so consulting about how to reform them is largely a fool’s errand—not the way sustainability experts and consultants want to be thought of.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

“Which species are we sure we can survive without?” Revisited

“Which species are we sure we can survive without?” Revisited

Two years ago I asked the question in the title of this piece. Now comes a wide-ranging study that suggests we are about to test that question in a major way.

The study predicts that at the current rate of loss of insect species, 40 percent could be gone “in the next few decades.” What is particularly alarming is that this “could trigger wide-ranging cascading effects within several of the world’s ecosystems.” That means that many other life-forms including other animals and plants could find themselves without what they need to survive in this dangerous game of musical chairs orchestrated by humans. Might we be one of those species?

Insects do much of the crop pollination necessary for food production. A list of crops pollinated by bees is quite long. Humans could survive without these foods, but the nutrition and variety in our diets would be severely limited. And yet there is a greater problem. Outside of agriculture 80 to 95 percent of plant species require animal pollination. Since those plants are the base of every food chain, catastrophic declines in insect populations could lead to a collapse of existing ecosystems. The exact scope and effects of such a collapse cannot be fully anticipated. But it is doubtful humans would be unharmed.

Human civilization uses an enormous amount of free ecoservices, that is, services provided by nature including the purification of water, the formation of soil, the regulation of climate, and energy resources such as hydropower and biomass. However one values these services, the value is enormous. If humans had to pay for these services, that is, if we had to set up mechanical and chemical substitutes, we would never able to afford it. But, we probably wouldn’t be able to set up substitute systems that work as precisely and effectively as nature’s.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Is a key ingredient humans need to live about to run short?

Is a key ingredient humans need to live about to run short?

Phosphorus is essential for all living organisms. So, it’s not surprising that humans get their phosphorus from other living organisms, mostly plants, that have absorbed phosphorus from the soil.

The introduction of phosphate fertilizers made it possible to ensure that enough phosphorus for healthy plant growth is available in practically any farmland soils. At first, farmers had access to phosphate fertilizers from bone ash and later from phosphate deposits accumulated from bird and bat guano on certain tropical islands (some of which deposits were 30 feet deep before they were mined and completely exhausted). More recently, phosphates have come from mining rocks rich in phosphorus.

All seemed well for the long term as supplies of the rock phosphates were thought to be hundreds of years at current rates of consumption. But a group of researchers upended the consensus in 2009 forecasting that phosphate production could peak as early as 2030. A peak wouldn’t be the end of phosphate production. But it would mark the beginning of an ongoing decline in phosphorus available from mines. This would come as a shock to a world food system accustomed to consistently rising phosphorus supplies needed to feed a growing population.

There are ways to recycle the phosphorus we eat, primarily through the sewage sludge from municipal sewage systems. But one of the easiest and most beneficial ways is building soil using compost. Crop residue, animal manure and human food wastes are important sources for such compost. It’s an old idea that is finding it’s way back into our modern agriculture.

In fact, one of the most important factors in the availability of phosphorus in any soil is the healthy presence of vast colonies of microorganisms that free phosphorus from its inorganic chemical prisons and make it available to organic life. Compost is an excellent way to build such a microbiotic community.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Has U.S. shale oil entered a death spiral?

Has U.S. shale oil entered a death spiral?

The bad news coming out of the shale oil fields of America could all be put down to slumping oil prices. That is certainly a big factor. But as investment professionals like to say, when the tide goes out, we all find out who’s been skinny-dipping.

The pattern of negative news from shale country is not just related to price, however. Oil production, it seems, is being overstated industry-wide by 10 percent and 50 percent in the case of some companies, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The CEO of one of the largest players in the industry, Continental Resources, predicted that growth in shale oil production could fall by 50 percent this year compared to last year. In reality, we should expect worse as the industry for obvious reasons tends to exaggerate its prospects.

The place where the damage to investors has become severe is in private equity firms who hold a large portion of the shale oil industry’s high-yield debt. The plan for the firms was always to unload the debt on somebody else when better opportunities presented themselves. But the firms overstayed their welcome and are having a hard time even finding a bid in the market for these bonds.

With the big Wall Street players now questioning the value of their existing investments in shale oil, the industry is finding it hard to raise money. Not a single bond sale has come off since November in an industry which must continuously raise capital to survive.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The greatest good for the greatest number: A doctrine of acceptable losses

The greatest good for the greatest number: A doctrine of acceptable losses

In 1776 philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote a phrase that continues to be central to our modern way of thinking: “[I]t is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

That phrase has morphed into the familiar one cited in the title of this piece. Happiness, however, has been reinterpreted first as “good” meaning something which gives pleasure, a move toward a kind of hedonism. “Good” has, however, become associated with “goods,” that is, objects which consumers and businesses buy to further their personal and occupational goals.

This drift from the original meaning of what Bentham called his “fundamental axiom” is, in part, why we are addicted to economic growth and the consumerism that derives from it. We believe that “goods” are good for us and so more “goods” will always bring more good in their wake.

But now I want to examine the second part of this phrase: “the greatest number.” It just makes sense to most of us that a right-thinking person would endorse the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number. Doesn’t such a framework maximize the life chances of the greatest number of people? Of course, it all depends on what one means by “life chances.”

What I want to point out is that “the greatest number” implies a doctrine of “acceptable losses.” If the net benefits of any course of action are measured for society as a whole instead of for every individual, then actions which kill many people are justified on the basis of the benefit to those who remain living. Such benefits are presumed to outweigh the loss incurred by those dying and those related to the deceased.

This is the bargain we have made, and it has led to mayhem everywhere.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Democracy, truth, fallibilism, and the tech overlords

Democracy, truth, fallibilism, and the tech overlords

In a recent conversation a friend of mine offered the following: “There would be no need to vote on anything if we knew the truth.” That statement has such profound implications that I will only scratch the surface of it here.

First, democracy presupposes that none of us knows the truth. We have our experience, our analyses, our logic and our intuitions, but we don’t have the truth with a capital “T.” We may reliably report our names to bank tellers. This is a social and legal designation, a definition backed by a birth certificate, driver’s license, and other official documents. Even here we are obliged to provide evidence of the truth of our identity to the teller.

But whether it is wise to subsidize electric cars, legalize gambling, or go to war are issues that are far beyond simple social and legal designations. Our information on such topics is always incomplete, conflicting and quite possibly unreliable. We have difficulty verifying through personal observation much of what we are told. And, we are prone to errors of logic and to misinterpretations.

For these reasons we often turn to experts to do our thinking for us. But they all suffer from the same disadvantages as we do and one additional one: Some are paid to say what they say. It is therefore in the cacophony of debate and consultation that we try to arrive at an approximation of the truth although according to the fallibilist view, we can never be sure that we are even close to the truth.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
Click on image to purchase